Today's teens and adolescents are more connected to others via digital technology than any previous generation.
Recent data suggests that social media venues like Facebook have surpassed e-mail as the preferred method of communication in all age groups. Any web site that allows social interaction is considered a social media site, including social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter; gaming sites; virtual worlds, such as Club Penguin or FarmVille; blogs, and video sites such as YouTube.
"While today's youth may be more digitally savvy than their parents, their lack of maturity and life experience can quickly get them into trouble with these new social media venues," explained Family Medicine physician Libre Johnson, M.D. "It is important that parents talk with their children of all ages and help them navigate this new online world through good digital citizenship skills.
"To start, parents should learn about these new technologies first hand, so that they have a frame of reference. Secondly, let your children know that their use of technology is something you want and need to know about. A parent can start this discussion with the topic of good digital citizenship, which teaches online safety and Internet research skills in combination with ethics.
"Try to get your children to talk with you on a regular basis, so that you know what they are doing with social media. In addition, keep the computer in a public part of your home, such as the family room or kitchen, so that you can check on what your kids are doing online and how much time they are spending there.
"Emphasize to your children that everything sent over the Internet or a cell phone can be shared with the entire world, so it is important they use good judgment in sending messages and pictures," Dr. Johnson advised. "Remember to make a point of discouraging kids from gossiping, spreading rumors, bullying or damaging someone's reputation using texting or other tools."
According to a recent study by Ambition AXA Awards, 90 percent of children aged 11-18, use social media sites.
Social Media Suggestions
To keep kids safe, have your kids and teens show you where the privacy features are for every social media venue they are using. Be aware of the ages of use for sites your middle school and older elementary school kids want to use. Many sites are for age 13 and older, and sites for younger kids require parental consent.
Be sure you are where your kids are online, such as Facebook, Twitter, etc. Have a policy requiring that you and your child "friend" each other. This is one way of showing your child you will provide a check and balance system by having an adult within arm's reach of their profile.
Create a strategy for monitoring your kids' online social media use, and be sure you follow through. You may want to say "Today I'll be checking your computer and cell phone." The older your kids are, the more often you may need to check.
Check chat logs, emails, files and social networking profiles for inappropriate content, friends, messages, and images periodically. Be transparent and let your kids know what you are doing. Parental controls on your computer or from your Internet service provider are all reasonable alternatives.
Set time limits for Internet and cell phone use, and learn the warning signs of trouble, such as skipping activities, meals and homework for social media; or a drop in grades. If these issues are occurring due to your child being online when they should be eating, sleeping, participating in school or social activities, your child may have a problem with Internet or social media.
Multitasking can be dangerous. Be sure to stress to teens the importance of not texting, Facebooking, using the phone, or engaging in similarly distracting activities while driving. Caution kids of all ages about using mobile devices while walking, biking, babysitting or doing other activities that require full attention.
The Problem of "Sexting"
Sexting refers to sending a text message with pictures of children or teens that are inappropriate, naked or engaged in sex acts. According to a recent survey, about 20 percent of teen boys and girls have sent such messages.
"The emotional pain that this causes can be enormous for the child in the picture as well as the sender and receiver, and often has legal implications," Dr. Johnson added. "Parents should begin the difficult conversation about sexting before there is a problem and introduce the issue as soon as a child is old enough to have a cell phone.
"When talking with your child, use examples appropriate for your child's age. For younger children with cell phones, alert them that text messages should never contain pictures of children or adults without their clothes on, or kissing or touching each other in ways that they've never seen before. Make sure kids of all ages understand that sexting can be considered a serious crime with serious consequences.
"The key thing to remember when it comes to children and social media is that parents should always have a very good idea of the games, people and sites their children visit, regardless of age. Parents need to know the terms and conditions of these sites and have access to passwords for their accounts."
Libre Johnson is a board certified Family Medicine physician affiliated with the Columbiana Family Care Center, 750 East Park Avenue in Columbiana,330-482-3871.